excerpt - chapter 1
On Christmas Day, 1975, Sebastian Lavalle sat at the large dining room table, surrounded by his family. He was more than grateful to be part of this celebration, which marked the coming together of his children and grandchildren for the first time in six years. Sebastian’s daughter Abby Lavalle spoke up. “I’d like to say grace,” she said softly. “I’m going to recite something very special: Amelia’s prayer.” Abby touched her angel Gabriel she wore at her neck. “Mother Mary, bless this day. Keep us safe in every way. Guide us to a peaceful place; fill our hearts and souls with grace. Enfold us in your tender care. Mother Mary, this is my prayer.” Sebastian could barely control his tears.
“Good call, Abby.” Andre, Sebastian’s son, spoke up, standing and tapping his glass. “As I am the eldest, the smartest, and the best looking,” he said, laughing, and everyone groaned at him. “Behave yourselves, as I’m about to make the Christmas toast.” As he spoke, the family settled down, and a gentle silence fell upon everyone, except for the little ones. The scene was perfect as Sebastian looked around the table. The jocularity had left Andre’s voice and eyes. Sebastian thought he had a melancholy aura. It was his usual look. He was like Amelia in that way.
“Welcome, everyone. A merry Christmas to you all. As I was thinking about what I’d like to say, it occurred to me Mam would’ve called this family reunion nothing less than miraculous. As the oldest sibling of the eight siblings, now thirty, I’d like to say that we have, over the years, experienced rather difficult times. It is true, I have discovered, that adversity does make one stronger.
“I’d like you all to know that if you were not a part of my life by birth, I’d seek you out in order that I might call you my friend. Dad, I know this has been difficult for you, and I cannot pass judgment. In becoming a Father, I’ve learned to understand many things I did not understand before. We all appreciate your commitment to the family and know that Mam would be overjoyed to witness this Christmas celebration. We know how much she loved you, and we thank you for your presence. Let us raise a glass to the family.”
They all stood up and said, “Cheers!” Sebastian knew there were not many dry eyes.
Sasha shouted out, “Well done, Andre! Abby, where are you flying off to next? You’re lucky. Will you take me in your suitcase?”
“I’d love to,” Abby replied. “This new year, we have new flight routes: Chicago, Miami, and Nashville.”
“That’s in Tennessee, right?” Andre said. “You’ll be able to go see Aunt Helen and the family and some of the friends you made.”
“I certainly hope to.” Abby smiled softly.
At the end of the day, Sebastian sat beside the tree, looking at the manger. On one knee sat his Granddaughter, Amelia, and on the other knee sat his Grandson Malachi. As Andre had said, although Amelia was not physically present, her beauty shone from within the two grandbabies, leaving a legacy of love, strength, and courage for all those who came after her.
Sebastian Lavalle moved with precision, winding his way through the cobblestone streets of the medieval village. As he walked, he passed the church of St. Nicholas, with its ancient steeple stretching towards the sky – a silhouette in the early evening. It was as if the steeple were reaching upward in search of some secret mystery.
Sebastian walked past the school, the bakery, and the hardware store. He meandered past the town square and the statue of St. Nicholas, which stood as it always had, sacred and strong. He saw the old town hall and the many beautiful homes winding their way toward the crest of the hill. All the homes were proud owners of window boxes bursting with hollyhocks, barberries, cyclamen, and roses in dusky reds, bright yellows, soft mauves, all tumbling down from each box. The flowers cascaded like waterfalls full of myriad shades of autumn and saturated the air with their perfume. Every step and every building triggered within him a memory and the emotion associated with it.
He eventually arrived at a familiar street. As he moved along the winding path toward the front door of the old stone house, he saw the old apple orchard and the mountains that framed the property. The sun was setting behind the mountains, which seemed to protect the village like the arms of gods, steadfast and familiar.
Standing still to allow the image and the beauty to surround him, he watched the sun slip behind the mountain as it took with it the last of the day. Breathing in the air and inhaling the perfume of France, he was filled with emotion, a warm sense that he was home, close to his roots and to his parents, his sources of strength. Wiping a tear from his cheek with the back of his hand, Sebastian looked up; he could see the stars shining like candles in the night sky. It seemed to him that the stars had guided him back.
Sebastian, for the first time in forty years, had come home.
Sebastian was not unlike the village he had returned to in that he was the same yet older. He was not as tall, as time had removed some of his height. He was heavier, though in the middle. However, his hair was still thick and wavy, though now it was pure white. His blue eyes were not quite as sapphire but more periwinkle, as they had faded over time. His eyebrows and long eyelashes were as thick but lighter. His jawline was equally as strong. Sebastian was still handsome for a man in his sixties.
After removing the key from his pocket, Sebastian unlocked the door and slowly pushed against it. The house had been vacant for those forty years. He thought to himself it was likely dilapidated and in a state of disrepair. The door creaked, heaved, and groaned as he pushed against the swollen wood.
When Sebastian stepped through the doorway, a flood of memories instantly carried him off to a distant time and place. He could see himself lifting Amelia in his arms, carrying her over the threshold, and kissing her tenderly.
As long as he lived, he would never forget the first time he’d seen Amelia. He had been in the Free French Navy, when his ship had been torpedoed in the North Sea and badly damaged. The Jeanne d’Arc had been redirected to Hadrian’s Shipyard in Newcastle upon Tyne to be refurbished.
Since it that been Bastille Day, the Captain had given some of the young sailors shore leave to celebrate at the local tea dance in the city.
Sebastian had been up in the balcony of the Crystal Palace ballroom, looking down on his shipmates as they danced with the beautiful young girls. He’d felt like a soaring bird, free and happy to be in the moment, away from the savage destruction of the war. Then his eyes had found her. He’d watched her gently move from table to table, pouring tea from a giant teapot. She had been tall, with dark curls cascading onto her shoulders, and wearing a golden dress. To Sebastian, she looked like a goddess. He’d known he had to dance with her, to hold her in his arms for just one moment.
They’d danced together all afternoon, and six days later, he’d married her. From the moment he first laid eyes upon her, Sebastian had understood there was no other woman walking the earth for him.
The chilly damp and darkness brought him back to the present. Every step he took induced another memory. This was the home he’d been born in and lived in during the first fifteen years of his life with his Mother, Father, and sister so long ago. Taking a flashlight from his pocket, he moved around the house, wandering from one dark tiny room to the next.
During World War II, the house had been occupied by the Nazis. His parents, sadly, had died during the occupation, leaving little to remember them by. The few sticks of furniture they’d owned had been destroyed or stolen. He had been filled with anticipation after the war, excited about the future because he and Amelia had had a home, and he’d had a good job with the French diplomatic corps. Sadly, their destiny had not been to settle in France.
Amelia had pined so badly for her home in Newcastle upon Tyne and her family that their doctor had told Sebastian to take her back to England, where she belonged. She would have some family support after giving birth to their first child, he’d said.
As he walked through the old rooms, Sebastian wondered if he had made the right decision to leave France and their little home with Amelia. He had been young and frightened. She had been young, homesick, and unable to speak the language; had not liked the food; and had been isolated day in and day out when he went to the city to work. They’d met and married in haste, and he had not understood the difficulties she’d had in adjusting to her new life. Relocating to England had been the only thing he could do for the good of their marriage and the unborn child.
Now Sebastian turned to the kitchen. Surprisingly, it was still mostly intact. He saw an old black iron sink, an oven, and a fireplace with an iron gate that looked the worse for wear. Smiling to himself, he remembered how his family had used the fire to heat the home and had carried water from the well in from outside. His Mother, and then Amelia, had prepared most of the meals over the fire. Sebastian passed the flashlight over the small space.
The structure of the building had not changed; it looked exactly as it had when he and his Amelia had left it so many years ago. Sebastian had decided to stay in England after Amelia’s death in order to be near his children, but several months ago, he’d received a letter, and as a result, he’d made this journey to France. Sebastian stopped wandering and pulled the letter out of his pocket. It was in a thin airmail envelope. Holding the flashlight, Sebastian read.
The auction was to be held the next morning on the property.
I hope you and your family are well.
I am writing to you because it has recently come to my attention that the old stone house and the property and orchard your parents owned may be available to buy. I think there is an opportunity for you at the auction September 18, Saturday morning, at 11:00 a.m., on the property. It’s not worth much; however, I believe this is something you will be more than interested in. If you visit, please let me know, and we can have dinner together.
We can meet at the house the morning of the auction.
Your cousin Louis